If you ask American ballet dancers to name the person with the biggest impact on their artform, chances are they'll answer: George Balanchine.
"George Balanchine changed the way we look at dance," enthuses Seattle arts writer Sandi Kurtz. "In the same way Picasso changed the way we look at visual art, the same way Mozart changed what we heard in the concert hall."
George Balanchine was born and trained in St. Petersburg, Russia, a bastion of classical ballet technique. He studied at the Mariinsky Theater, one of imperial Russia's great performance centers. In 1924, a few years after the Bolshevik revolution, Balanchine and several other dancers managed to relocate to Paris. That's where Balanchine began to choreograph for ballet impresario Serge Diaghelev's company, Les Ballets Russes.
George Balanchine's reputation as a dancemaker was cemented after he emigrated to the United States in 1933. Balanchine's work was based on his classical ballet training, but he wanted his dancers to move more quickly than traditional ballerinas, to use the floor as a springboard for jumps, to embody the music they performed to. The choreographer is credited with popularizing non-narrative dances that were more about mood and movement than the kinds of story ballets he'd studied and performed in his native Russia.
Although Balanchine died 30 years ago this spring, his dances live on thanks to a cadre of experts, called stagers, who learned them first hand at Balanchine's company, New York City Ballet. They travel the world, teaching these ballets to a new generation of dancers. Because so many of these works were created long before the advent of videotape, the stagers often rely only on their memories to reproduce what they learned in Balanchine's own studios.
Francia Russell is one of the deans of Balanchine stagers. She's the founding artistic director of Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet, a job she shared with her husband, Kent Stowell, for more than 20 years. Russell knows the Balanchine repertory first hand. She joined New York City Ballet (NYCB) in 1956 and danced there for six years. After she stopped dancing, Russell took a job as one of Balanchine's assistants, his ballet mistress. In the ballet mistress position, she helped to teach and rehearse Balanchine's ballets at NYCB, and later, at companies around the world. She was the first person to stage a Balanchine ballet in his native Russia.
Russell learned Balanchine's work long before the advent of videotape. She relies on memory to recreate his dances, along with a collection of notebooks that contain every Balanchine dance she knows. She selects a dog-eared spiral notebook that chronicles every step of the ballet "Concerto Barocco."
"I went into a room by myself, danced the whole thing, and wrote it down," she explains. But it's not just the steps that are important. As a stager, Russell has to know everything about the dance she's teaching, from the costumes and lighting to the choreographer's artistic intentions. "A stager is someone who should have all the information, be responsible for every aspect of the production," she explains.
These days Francia Russell does consult videotapes of particular performances, but when it comes to explaining how an arm should be lifted, or a leg extended, she demonstrates the movements herself. She believes that's in keeping with how dances are created in the first place.
"Dance is the only performative art that wasn't generated in a written form," explains writer Sheila Farr. She's been researching dance preservation. "A play is written first, that's how it starts. But for dance, that's not true."
Various notation systems have been devised to record dance, and videotaped performances provide an archives for scholars and for future stagers. But traditionally, dance has been transmitted from person to person. Stagers who worked personally with George Balanchine are aging, and Francia Russell worries that there's no official program in place to train their replacements. Even 30 years after Balanchine died, Russell is still committed to remounting his dances the way he taught them to her. "I feel it's important to pass on what he said, but I'm sure it's all filtered through my tastes, my memories. And you know how fallible that is!"
Russell hopes the dancers she's taught over the years will take up her work as a Balanchine stager. However faithful they may be to the choreographer's legacy, future performances of George Balanchine's work will be filtered through the tastes and memories of a new generation.
Pacific Northwest Ballet performs three works by George Balanchine Wednesday, February 13, at New York’s City Center.